On many days this offseason, Kevin Kaczmarski hung out with longtime major leaguer Curtis Granderson, a pro’s pro and huge benefactor to his alma mater, the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Now, a couple of weeks into spring training games, Kaczmarski often finds his name on a lineup card with the likes of Yoenis Cespedes, Adrian Gonzalez, Todd Frazier and Jay Bruce.
Kaczmarski, a 2010 Prairie Ridge graduate, has not yet hit the big time, but he has never been closer. The 26-year-old outfielder had a strong, healthy 2017 season, followed by another quality showing in the Arizona Fall League. After three minor league seasons, Kaczmarski was invited to major league camp, where he is trying to make the most of his opportunity.
“It’s really cool,” Kaczmarski said. “No. 1, you’re treated like a king. You have so many trainers helping you out, you get great food, you just get a whole bunch of good stuff. On top of that, you’re around some of the veterans who have learned how to go about their business, as well as the big-league coaches. All in all, it’s a really big opportunity.”
Kaczmarski (5-foot-11, 195 pounds), who throws with his right arm but hits from the left side, was taken in the ninth round of MLB’s First-Year Player Draft in 2015. He spent last season with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies of the Double-A Eastern League, hitting .274 with five homers and 52 RBIs.
Most importantly, after battling an abdominal tear throughout 2016, Kaczmarski was pain-free for 2017. The surgery in December 2016 alleviated his problems. It was as if he had been set free.
“I felt great going into last year; I felt healthy,” Kaczmarski said. “That carried me the whole year, from the beginning of spring training to the end. I think there was a span where I played 72 games in a row without sitting. That was huge. It went really well.”
Kaczmarski then hit .351 with a home run and 11 RBIs in 20 games of the Arizona Fall League. He knew a major league camp invitation was possible but did not want to be disappointed.
“I always told myself, ‘Don’t expect it,’ because I don’t want to get up for something so much that’s not really a given,” Kaczmarski said. “But it was hard not to because I had a good season in Double-A, and I played well in the fall league. I knew I’d played well. In the back of my mind, I knew I had a shot.”
In January, he got the call.
The Mets have Cespedes, Bruce, Juan Lagares, Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto (who is injured) and Champ Stuart in camp as outfielders. Kaczmarski is among the nonroster invitees. Through 10 games, he was hitting .111 with one RBI, although that’s a small sample size.
Kaczmarski is a long shot for the major league roster, although landing with the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s, could be another step up. He and former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow are among the nonroster outfielders in camp.
Kaczmarski was a sophomore at Prairie Ridge when the Wolves won the Class 4A state championship in 2008. He was one of eight players on that team who started their college careers at NCAA Division I schools. Kaczmarski was used mainly as a pinch runner in that postseason but played a major role the next two years.
Nick Martini, a senior in 2008, is in Oakland’s major league camp.
While at Evansville, Kaczmarski played center field and improved his offensive numbers each year. He led the NCAA in hitting at .465 as a senior before being drafted by the Mets.
Last spring, Kaczmarski met Granderson, who is now 36 and plays for the Toronto Blue Jays. Kaczmarski used that contact this offseason when he came back to the Chicago area.
“He’s a Chicago guy; he’s a legend in Chicago,” Kaczmarski said. “He’s a great dude. He doesn’t have an ego or anything; he’s just a normal dude. He said come work out in the offseason if you need a place to work out.”
Granderson donated money for UIC’s baseball field, named Curtis Granderson Stadium. He typically works out at the school in the offseason, which usually is where Kaczmarski and other pro players joined him.
“Curtis has that aura,” Kaczmarski said. “It was definitely good.”
Kaczmarski tried to soak up all he could from Granderson, who has been in the majors since 2004.
“It was [his comfort] of how he reacts with people,” Kaczmarski said. “Just the way he went about his business. I’d be unsure about something, if it was signing with a bat company or something like that, I would ask for his 2 cents. He has so much experience and has been through that already. It gives you perspective. Just being a good friend.”